Fort Collins got mixed results on 2020 climate goals. What does that mean for 2030 goals?

Jacy Marmaduke
Fort Collins Coloradoan

When Fort Collins started setting its 2020 environmental goals in the late aughts, the year was a semi-distant point on the horizon. Now it’s in the rearview mirror.

So, how’d we do?

One out of three, most likely.

The bull's-eye is Fort Collins’ energy goal: The community reached 33% renewable electricity in 2020, surpassing the goal of 20%. The misses are on Road to Zero waste — which set a 2020 benchmark of 75% landfill diversion, about 20% higher than Fort Collins achieved last year — and the Climate Action Plan, which sought to reduce community greenhouse gas emissions by 20% of 2005 levels in 2020.  

The final 2020 inventory won’t be available for another year, but city staff project the community reduced emissions by 17%. The recently released 2019 inventory put Fort Collins just 7% below 2005 levels, as the city incorporated emissions from the Broadcom manufacturing facility for the first time and emissions from natural gas and vehicle travel increased from the year before. Without the Broadcom emissions, 2019 emissions would’ve been about 15% below the 2005 base level.

Overall, compared to 2018:

  • Electricity emissions, which made up 46% of emissions, were down about 1.4% in 2019
  • Natural gas-related emissions, which made up 22% of emissions, were up 7%
  • Ground travel emissions, which made up 21% of emissions, were up 5%
  • Emissions from Broadcom, which made up 9% of emissions, were up 11%
  • Emissions from solid waste, which made up 2% of emissions, were down 33%

The stunted progress belies real strides Fort Collins has made in lowering per-capita emissions as the population grows. Per-capita emissions have decreased about 28% since 2005 due to local policy efforts and “changes in our world,” from climbing vehicle fuel efficiency to more efficient appliances, said Fort Collins Energy Services Manager John Phelan. But Fort Collins’ population has grown by more than 30% since 2005, and the city’s actions and broader market and regulatory changes haven’t been enough to bring down overall emissions in a more meaningful volume.

“The reason our absolute emissions don't go down is we’ve got a lot more people,” Phelan said.

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Staff expect a significant dive in emissions in 2020 (17% below 2005 levels) and 2021 (26% below 2005 levels) because they’ll reflect the community’s renewable energy progress. Emissions from electricity make up almost half of the community’s greenhouse gas emissions, so renewable electricity integration remains one of the most effective ways to move the needle. The 2020 inventory will include about six months of production from the new Roundhouse Renewable Energy wind farm and additional solar units that came online toward the end of the year. The 2021 inventory will include a full year of Roundhouse wind and other renewables that will bring the city's power provider, Platte River Power Authority, to about 50% renewable electricity.

The state of 2020 progress, paired with a rejiggered, all-encompassing climate planning effort called “Our Climate Future,” has city leaders and staff doing some soul-searching about the next semi-distant point on the horizon: 2030, when the city aspires to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% and reach 100% renewable electricity. The city also has a zero waste goal in place for 2030, but staff is now suggesting that City Council consider moderating that goal.

Fort Collins ultimately aspires to be carbon neutral by 2050, a goal that City Council members cautioned staff against retreating from at a Feb. 9 update on the Our Climate Future plan. The plan, which council will vote on in March, seeks to merge the greenhouse gas emissions, landfill diversion and energy goals into one path forward for climate. It includes 13 “big moves,” which are broad, aspirational outcomes like affordable and healthy housing for all; zero-emission, efficient buildings; ensuring that people can meet their daily needs without driving across town; and creating a climate-resilient community. Each big move includes a list of associated “next moves,” or strategies needed to accomplish it.

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The city will need to fund and follow through with several transformative changes to achieve its more ambitious 2030 goals and ultimately the 2050 goal, said Phelan, co-leader of the Our Climate Future planning effort.

It will also need help, he said, adding that “broadening the tents” is a foundational aspiration of the Our Climate Future plan. Phelan and staff are hoping to inspire more community buy-in by making climate action “a catalyst for addressing all kinds of challenges, from affordable housing to a healthy economy, to how we get around town, rather than the other way around.”

“If we're going to accomplish these goals, the city can't lead on everything,” Phelan said. “It's a community effort. And the more relevant to people's daily activities and lives we can make this, the more successful we're going to be.”

Three key strategies

Staff later in February will share a detailed 2021-22 tactical plan with council that will take a closer look at immediate next steps and may point to funding opportunities in the 2022 budget. Already, staff have identified three things that comprise a “critical path” toward Fort Collins’ 2030 goals.

The first is achieving 100% renewable electricity. The second is expanding the community’s transit network in adherence with the 2019 Transit Master Plan, which calls for $300 million in capital improvements and a doubled annual operating budget for public transportation over the next 20 years. The third is rolling out municipal composting.

Reaching all-renewable electricity would be a tremendous stride toward the 2030 emissions goal. Fort Collins has more influence in that regard than some other municipalities because it co-owns its power provider, Platte River Power Authority, and city representatives have two spots on its board. Platte River is working toward a goal of 100% non-carbon electricity by 2030, but the power provider’s staff and some board members have recently expressed doubts that it will be able to reach the goal. The board has committed to retiring all coal-fired units by 2030.

Platte River leaders are confident they’ll be able to reach upward of 90% renewable electricity by 2030, but staff think new natural gas units may be necessary to bridge the gap. The board recently adopted a nonbinding plan that contemplates bringing natural gas units online closer to 2030, inspiring swift rebuke from local environmental advocacy groups such as the Fort Collins Sustainability Group.

Kevin Cross, convener of the Fort Collins Sustainability Group, said the city’s progress on increasing renewable electricity supply is a bright spot, but the group wants Fort Collins to push Platte River to go further.

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“For a city like Fort Collins, electricity is kind of the key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to the levels that we really need to see,” Cross said. “Decarbonized supply makes it possible to reduce emissions in sectors like transportation and home heating, which are the other big components for a city.”

To quash transportation-related emissions, the city needs to meet the goals laid out in the transit master plan, staff say. A key goal of the plan is to triple the portion of trips taken by public transit by 2040, from 1.6% in 2019 to almost 5%. The document envisions reaching that goal by adding new routes, including bus rapid transit (MAX) routes; increasing the frequency of stops; and adding regional routes and connections, among other strategies.

The other big piece of reducing emissions from vehicle travel is the transition to electric vehicles, which the city has struggled to catalyze. Electric vehicles make up just a small percentage of vehicles in Fort Collins despite city investment in charging infrastructure and participation in electric vehicle education and group buy events. However, federal and state regulations could change the picture for electric vehicle adoption, and the industry may be poised for a shift as well. GM announced last month that it plans to sell only zero-emission vehicles by 2035, a huge change for a corporation that previously lobbied for the rollback of Obama-era fuel efficiency standards.

The third item on city staff’s short list, the rollout of municipal composting, is in some ways a waiting game. The city currently has no viable destination for yard waste and food scraps. Regional plans for new composting facilities for yard waste and food scraps, initially slated for 2022 and 2024, respectively, are behind schedule. Meanwhile, a planned construction and demolition waste facility is on hold due to COVID-19-related impacts on the construction industry.

The lack of new infrastructure is a key reason Fort Collins hasn’t made much of a dent in its landfill diversion rate over the years, said Caroline Mitchell, environmental program manager for Waste Reduction and Recycling. The community has kept between 50% and 60% of waste out of landfills eight out of 10 years between 2010 and 2019, hitting a relative low of 53% in 2019. The city’s recycling ordinance has extended recycling to almost all of the community, and its industrial recycling rate approached 70% in 2019.

“Our community performs at the rate that you would expect for the systems that we have in place,” Mitchell said. “We’ve heard interest in yard trimmings and food scraps composting over and over (from the community), and that was reflected again in the outreach through Our Climate Future. But right now, the closest facility that can process food scraps is out in Keenesburg, 60-some miles away, and that distance creates a cost for providing that service that is just unreasonable for most businesses and residents.”

The delays in regional infrastructure as well as systemic changes to the global recycling market have staff suggesting a revised goal for landfill diversion. The new goal would be to ensure that 85% of waste is recoverable by 2035 and to divert 85% of that recoverable waste from landfills. Several council members said at the Feb. 9 work session that they wouldn’t support moving the goal posts, though.

“I do think we should keep it at 100%,” council member Emily Gorgol said. “Keeping at 100% really holds us accountable to getting to a place where we’re thinking more holistically about waste.”

Mayor pro-tem Ross Cunniff agreed, saying he wouldn’t support the Our Climate Future Plan as-is because “it feels like a retreat.”

“I think we can do better,” he said. “The specifics are, to me, almost (saying), ‘Well, we’re not going to get there, so we’re going to highlight resiliency rather than climate action.’ … It feels like we haven’t even scratched the surface of what we can do” with partnerships with businesses, utility providers, regional governments and other potential collaborators, he added.

Asked to respond to Cunniff’s characterization of the plan as a “retreat” from the city’s climate goals, staff declined to comment.

Confronting Broadcom's emissions

Cross thinks the city’s “critical path” priority list has a glaring omission: Wrangling greenhouse gas emissions from Broadcom, which makes semiconductor chip components for cellphones at its southeast Fort Collins factory. Broadcom's manufacturing process produces significant volumes of fluorinated gases, which have potent heat-trapping potential. The factory was responsible for 9% of Fort Collins’ greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 and is the sole producer of emissions in the newly added “industrial process and product use” category.

Fort Collins Sustainability Group, which has been advocating for municipal climate progress since 2005 and co-led the drive for the city’s 100% renewable electricity goal, has swiveled its spotlight to Broadcom during the last few years. The group first implored council to include Broadcom’s emissions in the community inventory — “those emissions are real … and we thought it was important to tell the truth,” Cross said — and it is now calling on the city to put more pressure on the company.

Cross, emphasizing that he was speaking for himself and not for the sustainability group, suggested the city consider a local carbon fee like the one previously considered in Denver.

“If a company were dumping toxins in the Poudre River, the community would justifiably be outraged by that,” Cross said. “The fact that Broadcom is spewing enormous quantities of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that wreck the climate should produce similar outrage.”

Broadcom emissions had been declining between 2016 and 2018, but they increased 11% in 2019.

Fort Collins doesn’t have many tools to reduce Broadcom’s emissions, said Phelan, who added the company has been “very helpful in helping us understand what's behind the numbers.” He referred additional questions about Broadcom emissions to the company.

Asked to explain the emissions increase and answer a list of Coloradoan questions, the company provided a written statement. Broadcom has used abatement technology to mitigate its greenhouse gas emissions since 2005, according to a spokesperson.

“While production has grown significantly at the Fort Collins facility, installation of numerous abatement units has significantly reduced the overall emissions of greenhouse gases on a per-product basis,” the statement said. “We are proud to be a Gold Leader of the Environmental Leadership Program from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and will continue to evaluate and deploy new devices and technologies to improve overall performance and reduce emissions, including greenhouse gases, from this facility. We remain committed to conducting our business in an environmentally sustainable manner and being a responsible corporate citizen and employer in our local communities.”

The city's role in climate action

Another harder-to-control category of greenhouse gas emissions is natural gas use. Most homes still use gas for water and home heating, and the number of homes in Fort Collins is increasing. Those emissions are also closely tied to weather, which is partially why staff think they increased in 2019. A little more than half of natural gas-related emissions come from the commercial and industrial sectors, which will have to be a part of any effective efforts to reduce those emissions.

Electric heat pumps may be the answer, Phelan said, but they can only make a difference in community emissions if people switch over to that technology. That approach will require widespread community education, improvements in contractors’ familiarity with the technology, supply chain changes, work with property managers and lots of moving parts, he said.

“It will be a clear focus of our work in the coming years to make that transition from encouraging efficiency within natural gas to actually switching from natural gas to an efficient electric option,” he said. The Our Climate Future plan also includes a recommended goal to reduce natural gas use by 10% of the forecast between 2021 and 2030.

The complexities of the natural gas goal illustrate an ongoing conversation at the city level about what exactly city government’s role should be in achieving environmental goals. The city should be a leader but not the only one, agreed Phelan and two other environmental staffers, Environmental Sustainability Specialist Adelle McDaniel and Interim Climate Program Manager Michelle Finchum.  

Fort Collins will never have the resources needed to “buy our way” to the climate goals with city incentives and other spending measures, Phelan said, adding that businesses, community organizations and higher levels of government will also need to join the city on the road to 2030 and 2050 if they haven't already. He emphasized the influence of groups like the Fort Collins Sustainability Group and other that have pushed council to take a more aggressive approach on climate.

Still, Finchum said there’s an undeniable benefit to city leadership on climate.

“There's no one formula, but when a city does declare that climate action is something we're going to be staffing, we're going to be looking toward, we're going to be trying to plan for, it makes a difference overall in the city’s outcome,” she said. “We do have a lot of levers when you look at climate action. We don't have them all, but we can't wait for the federal government or sometimes even the state to do it.”

Jacy Marmaduke covers government accountability for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter @jacymarmaduke.